The Independent, UK

The children who dream of dying for their cause

By Eric Silver

11 July 2001

A Palestinian girl aged 11 dreamt that she went to a market in Israel with bombs all over her body. She stopped in the middle of a crowd of shoppers, counted to 10, then blew herself up.

A boy of 10 dreamt that he went with his family to Bethlehem. Israeli troops shot his parents, brothers and sisters. He alone survived, and was taken to his aunt's house. He wished he had been killed.

A girl dreamt that she was walking along the road and found a strange object. She called the Palestinian police, who found it was a missile. They took it and copied it, then started shooting at settlements. And that's how the settlements were destroyed and the Israelis withdrew.

When they awoke, the children wrote down their dreams for Dr Shafiq Massalha, 45, an Arab clinical psychologist who studied the dreams of West Bank children in 1989 during the first intifada and is now repeating the exercise in the second.

With the help of teachers and social workers in towns, villages and refugee camps, he distributed notebooks this spring to a random sample of 150 boys and girls aged 10 and 11. He asked them to record their dreams every morning for 10 days and to illustrate them. They got a present when they handed them in.

He found 78 per cent of the dreams were political. "Their identity is not individual, but collective," the researcher said in his home in the prosperous, relatively peaceful east Jerusalem village of Beit Safafa. "The nature of these dreams was physical violence." Most of the dreams were disrupted. "I woke up terrified," one boy said.

A child from a refugee family wrote: "I dreamt that a warplane was bombing all the houses in the camp. I heard that the Jews intended to bomb the children. I ran away. The plane chased me. It bombed my house. All the children were martyred." Another dreamt that a missile severed his head from his body. Fifteen per cent of the sample wished to be martyrs, Palestinians killed in the intifada and guaranteed a place in paradise.

Almost every child, Dr Massalha added, knew and cited the names of such shaheeds from their own area, as well as Mohammed al Dura, the 12-year-old shot dead on the world's television screens at the beginning of the uprising. The martyrs were their idols. They wanted to be like Mustafa or Ahmed.

"I would like to go to Heaven," one wrote. Another was more specific. Given the option of recording a wish if he didn't dream, he wrote: "On 4 May I want to become a martyr."

The children feel that their parents are not competent to protect them. A paternalist society has lost its anchor. They turn to the Palestinian police instead, but in most cases the police don't rescue them either. A generation of Palestinian children is growing up with no one to trust.

"The world is not safe," Dr Massalha said. "Life is so horrible that death is an outlet. These attitudes will colour the way they will act, but I have no way of knowing whether it will lead to physical violence." In contrast to 1989, most of the 2001 dreamers see themselves as passive victims. In the first intifada, Dr Massalha found, most of the children reported active dreams. They were in demonstrations and threw stones at soldiers. This time, with the decline in mass confrontations and the shift from stones to guns and bombs, they are hurt rather than hurting.

"They mention missiles and tanks, which they did not mention in 1989," the psychologist said. "The hurt is coming from someone unseen. We see this also in the drawings. There is no real contact between Palestinians and Israelis, but kids are dead."

Precisely because the victim is passive, the psychological wounds are deeper. Dr Massalha's conclusions are bleak. "Any experience, especially the very strong and unusual, is never completely erased. If the situation continues as it is, the trauma will grow. If it stops and a new reality takes over, it will still take a lot of time and effort to overcome the mistrust and hatred."